Continuous Improvement -- Fine Tuning The Fast Food Lane

Dec. 21, 2004
Customer-care lessons abound, especially when mixing mass customization and drive-thru moments.

"I'm hungry," came the call from the back seat, in between running from here to there. So we turned into a drive-thru to pick up a kid's meal. I hadn't been through a drive-thru for a while, so it startled me at first when I was greeted by a peppy recorded message urging me to try a new chicken sandwich. From a marketing perspective that's pretty smart, I thought, automatically filling the time before customers make up their mind with a special offer. In this case a new product that might lead to repeat business, an elusive and valuable prize in any commodity business. When I drove up to pay, Jon first asked my permission to go get a new battery for his headset, which he used to take orders at the same time that he took people's money. (Why weren't the batteries stored at the point of use?) When he returned about a minute later, he asked for the wrong amount, then realized that he was an order or two behind and didn't know how to make his computer go back to my order. He apologized for that too, and called a supervisor, who wandered over and wordlessly pushed the right button. While Jon began to punch in another customer's order, he handed me my change, and I pulled up to the next window to pick up my food. Mary politely asked what kind of dipping sauce I wanted. None, I replied, but peeking into the bag, I noticed there were no napkins. (Who would serve a kid's meal without napkins? Especially one that normally comes with dipping sauce?) I asked Mary for some napkins, twice, but it didn't register -- she was wearing a headset too -- and the window snapped shut. I sat and waited for someone to return. Less than 10 seconds later the window flipped open again and someone new, I didn't catch his name, began to hand me the order for the SUV in the rear-view mirror. I asked for napkins, which he was happy to give me, and I drove away as that highly engineered aroma filled the car, making me regret not trying the new chicken sandwich. Fast-food restaurants have long taken a cue from manufacturing, matching output to demand through rigorously prescribed processes and specialized tools, like the scoop that efficiently fills each french fry sack. Led by Taco Bell, the production processes in many of these operations have evolved from mass production to mass customization. Final assembly occurs in a workcell-like setup that can quickly deliver a broad menu selection that is fresh and hot. Here, multi-skilled individuals -- I don't think I could take orders and make change at the same time -- continually shift roles. If they are thoroughly trained and take the time to listen -- sometimes that's a big "if" -- each has the ability to respond to the special needs of every customer. What's unique about many service processes, in comparison to manufacturing, is that customers participate directly in the production process. For the customer, the quality of the service becomes wrapped up in the quality of the product. Each supports or detracts from the other, and the overall quality of the experience does much more than a recorded sales pitch to drive repeat business. Was the process that I participated in broken? I placed my order, handed over my money, and received everything I asked for, not perfectly, but with minimal frustration. The desires in the back seat had been met, "Can I open the toy?" But I hadn't received quality service. As we drove away, I couldn't help but think about the thousands of less-than-perfect customer experiences occurring daily at this restaurant, and how much more likely to return I would be if something beyond my basic needs (food) had been even moderately anticipated. Imagine, as scary an idea as it might be, how much you would improve if your customer directly participated in your production processes. How many more chicken sandwiches would you sell? David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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